Court Rules Same-sex Couples Have Equal Access to Survivor’s Benefits

A federal court ruled Wednesday (May 27) that the U.S. Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) refusal to consider claims for survivor’s benefits by a same-sex couple who weren’t yet married for nine months because of marriage bans is unconstitutional, according to LGBTQ legal organization Lambda Legal.

Michael Ely was denied survivor benefits following the death of his husband James A. Taylor because, while they had been together for 43 years, they were only legally married for six months because of the same-sex marriage ban. The SSA requires couples be married “for a period of not less than nine months” to qualify for benefits.

However, the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona Magistrate Judge Bruce Macdonald ruled that Ely does in fact qualify for these benefits. “Because the duration of marriage requirement is based on an unconstitutional Arizona law, it cannot withstand scrutiny at any level,” Macdonald wrote in his decision. “The unconstitutional infringement on Mr. Ely and Mr. Taylor’s fundamental right to marriage I snow being perpetuated further by the denial of Mr. Ely to obtain survivor’s benefits.”

Same-sex marriage was not legalized in Arizona, where the couple resided, until 2014. When the ban was overturned, the couple married within a month, and six months later Taylor died after battling with cancer.

“It is gratifying to have the court today recognize the 43 years of love and commitment that my late husband and I shared, rather than looking only at the date on a marriage certificate we were denied for most of our lives,” Ely said in a statement. “…My husband paid into social security with every paycheck, and I know he can rest easier now knowing that I, at last, will start receiving the same benefits as other widowers.”

“This is a tremendous victory for many surviving same-sex spouses nationwide who have been locked out of critical benefits because they were unlawfully barred from marriage for most of their relationships,” said Lambda Legal Counsel Peter Renn. “Many same-sex couples were in loving, long-term, and committed relationships for decades—and they shouldn’t be treated as strangers in death simply because they were unable to marry for most of that time. No one should be penalized for being the victim of discrimination.”